Forget Freddy Krueger. The Funny Man is the wisecracking supernatural killer we need. Making a glove out of razor blades and invading people’s dreams is all well and good, but dressing up as a duck hunter to kill Velma from Scooby-Doo? Constructing an entire strip club just to entrap your next victim? Now that’s commitment.
But it’s not just the elaborate, theatrical kills that make Funny Man a magnificent (if mostly-forgotten) gem. Simon Sprackling’s 1994 low-budget horror-comedy is the natural evolution of the slasher film, a genre that, Italian Giallo aside, started to embrace its own ridiculousness.
It’s easy to forget that the first Nightmare on Elm Street was a straight-laced horror movie; it wasn’t until the sequels that things got a little silly. You’d go in rooting for Freddy, eager to witness the macabre quips he’d fire off as he murdered the teenage “heroes.” There might be the odd jump scare or two, but with Robert Englund under the makeup, you were always in for silly, bloody fun.
Funny Man takes that concept and dials it up to eleven. Filmed on a budget of roughly £50,000, Funny Man was a labor of love for the cast and crew, many of whom worked for free or did a job several levels above their pay grade. It’s a glorious blend of comedy and gore, set in an ancestral mansion that’s home to the titular Funny Man. When Max Taylor wins the mansion in a card game, he moves his family in, little suspecting the nightmare that awaits him. On top of that, his brother drives down with a group of oddball hitchhikers, ensuring the Funny Man won’t be short of victims.
Funny Man doesn’t so much break the fourth wall as it does knock it down with a bulldozer before clambering out to elbow you in the ribs. When Freddy killed a hapless victim, there was always the sense the viewer was in on the joke; here, there’s absolutely no doubt. “I’ve got me arse-kicking boots on tonight!” the Funny Man grins as one victim takes a seat, one of many, many asides to the audience. Deadpool, eat your heart out.
It’s no coincidence that the Funny Man is a fusion of court jester and Mr. Punch; it wasn’t just some random costume pillaged from a fancy dress shop. Sprackling, who wrote and directed the film, drew inspiration from Shakespearean fools—which often directly address the audience—as well as The Wicker Man’s off-putting jester. He also drew on traditional Punch and Judy shows, once a common sight on British beaches.
The movie employs its influences to great effect. It’s sheer pantomime, more so than even Nightmare on Elm Street. There’s even a kill that takes place inside a Punch and Judy tent as the Funny Man cheers enthusiastically from a deckchair. It abandons any pretense of having a proper story; the Funny Man is here to entertain you, and that is all that matters.
Like Nightmare on Elm Street, Funny Man wouldn’t be half as much fun without a strong lead performance, and Tim James steals the show. In his hands, despite the character’s murderous plans, the Funny Man becomes oddly charming. At one time, Sprackling intended Funny Man to be more of a conventional horror icon, but it was James’s performance that molded the film into its final, comedic form. One minute he’s electrocuting an inattentive teenager who’s engrossed in her Game Boy—proving once-and-for-all that video games do cause violence—and in the next, he’s dispensing well-meaning wisdom.
As Sprackling explains it, he’s the friend you’re not really sure you want. James’s performance and sense of timing elevate the already absurd set pieces into pure art. The strip club scene has the Funny Man dressed like a bouncer, stripper, and disgruntled husband of the same stripper, all so he can cram a high heel into a man’s eye. At times, Funny Man is two steps away from turning into a sketch show.
Tim James isn’t the only standout turn in Funny Man, however. His amiability is balanced out by the more sinister presence of Callum Chance, played by Christopher Lee. No, really. Dracula, Saruman, Count Dooku, Willy Wonka’s dad. That Christopher Lee. It might be surprising to see Lee in a film made on a shoestring budget; the crew frequently had to re-jig scenes because the resources they originally wanted simply weren’t available. However, thanks to a lull in Lee’s career, Sprackling was able to get him for a surprisingly low price.
It’s obvious that Christopher Lee’s scenes were shot all at once, but it’s a neat way to bookend some of the scenes and—coupled with the poetic nature of some of the characters’ fates—makes Funny Man feel a little like a lost Amicus anthology. However, in an interview featured on the film’s UK Blu-Ray release, Sprackling claims that Lee found one of the death scenes particularly offensive. When he wouldn’t remove it, the actor refused to endorse the movie. This apparently led to the bizarre situation where Lee was flown to Cannes, having agreed to publicize Funny Man but, if asked, wouldn’t speak positively of the film.
As entertaining as Funny Man is, there are darker implications to all the fourth-wall-breaking. You could at least pretend that Freddy Krueger was slaughtering people for the sheer fun of it and that you, as an audience member, were a horrified (if unapologetically amused) bystander. By comparison, Funny Man’s asides make you a more active participant in the carnage.
Sure, the Funny Man is having the time of his life, but he knows that you’re watching and getting as much of a kick out of the gore as he is. When Velma’s grey matter flies across the screen, glasses still attached, he turns to you and gives you a respectful nod. Alright, mate? Was that what you were looking for? You see that? You made that happen.
Funny Man is everything you could want from a ’90s slasher but streamlined. The Nightmare on Elm Street movies insisted on nonsense like character development and plot. But who needs a love interest when you’re going to be introduced to the business end of a blunderbuss? Funny Man knows why people watch stalk-and-slash movies, and it delivers in droves.
It’s a real shame, then, that Funny Man never got a sequel or achieved the level of horror notoriety it so-clearly deserves. The film is far from perfect; there are times, for example, that it feels just a little too disjointed. But it could easily have spawned a whole horror comedy franchise, putting Freddy Krueger’s tongue-in-cheek rampages to shame. He’d probably even coax a chuckle out of Jason Voorhees.
Instead, it sank into the swamp of bland, generic slashers spawned throughout the 90s. With so many horror distributors in the market, your best bet might be to cross your fingers for a Blu-ray restoration so you can experience the blood-drenched lunacy yourself. After all, you’d be a fool not to.